This is a chapter of King Arthur and His Knights by Blanche Winder.
At the time the Grail Cup was carried to Britain, many strange things took place all over the world. One of the strangest was an adventure which happened to a heathen king called Mordrain, who had known Joseph and had become a Christian on account of the things that Joseph had taught him.
Mordrain was out hunting one day, when his horses took fright at the thunder and lightning of a great storm. They galloped off with the chariot in which the king sat; and he would have been killed had not a mysterious hand and arm, like the hand and arm of a giant, come out of one of the blackest clouds, lifted him bodily, swung him through the storm-riven air, and set him down on an island in the middle of the ocean!
The island was nothing but a great pile of rugged rocks, with caves running deeply within them. King Mordrain was terribly hungry; and, as he climbed about the rocks, he thought he would certainly die of famine and thirst. Suddenly, he caught sight of the prettiest little ship in the world, fluttering like a butterfly out of the blackness of the storm. Mast, sails, and rigging were all lily-white, and a red cross, like the cross that you may see nowadays on the banner of St. George of England, floated just above the bow; and, under the crimson cross, a man with a kind beautiful face stood erect, gazing towards the desolate island.
This pretty red-and-white ship came sailing on and paused at last almost at the feet of the astonished king. As it lay, moving softly up and down, the man struck a harp which he held and began to sing. While he sang, it seemed as if a delicious fragrance floated from the ship, so that Mordrain felt as if he stood in a valley of wildflowers. He shut his eyes and he thought that sweet cool grass was springing up about his feet and that trees with rosy apples on them grew within reach of his hand; and that, farther still, sleek gentle cows were walking homeward to be milked. Still, the man in the bows of the ship sang on; and then Mordrain thought that he was drinking the cows’ sweet milk, biting joyfully into the red apples, and eating white delicate bread. All the time, the song continued and the king caught the echo of the words.
“I am the minstrel who sails the seas from port to port. I make beautiful the things which once were ugly and vile. I give riches to the poor, health to the sick, happiness to the sorrowful! To you, oh, sad and weary king, I give refreshing food and drink of which you are in need!”
The song ceased, and Mordrain opened his eyes. Nothing was to be seen but the salt ocean, the cruel rocks, and the little white ship with the man who sang in the bows. But Mordrain felt as if he had just risen from the most delicious feast in the world! His eyes were bright, and he stood upright, strong, and happy. But, just as he was going to beg the minstrel to land, the whole ship vanished from sight! Instead of the delicate white sails, the glowing red cross, Mordrain now saw another ship driving fast through the water, out of the north. This vessel was richly fitted and inlaid with thousands of jewels. Its sails were like black velvet; and, under their mysterious shadow, sat the most beautiful woman the king had ever seen.
This woman, too, was singing as the ship drove in among the rocks. But Mordrain, listening, knew that her song was evil. She sang of a palace where she reigned as queen, to which she wanted to carry the king in her boat. She promised him wealth, and ease, and luxury. All the time she sang, the lightning flashed upon the jewels on the mast and rigging; the thunder pealed and rolled and muttered. Over and over again Mordrain was on the point of stepping onto the boat and telling the beautiful wicked woman that he would sail away with her to her own land. But something always held him back.
At last, as a vivid lightning flash wrapped all the ship in blue flame, while the thunder crashed like cannon, the song suddenly ceased. When Mordrain’s eyes were cleared from the blindness which had fallen upon them for a moment’s space, both ship and singer had vanished.
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Great waves were breaking over the rocks now, and the king took shelter in a deep cave. All night he heard the seas and winds roaring, but, towards morning, both sky and water became calm. Mordrain fell asleep and dreamed that, once more, he stood in the valley of flowers. Waking up, he smelt their fragrance; and, peeping out of his cave, he saw, again, the pretty ship rocking in the harbor, with its lily-white sails, its red cross, and its minstrel making music on his harp.
Mordrain hurried down the rocks to meet him and told him of the beautiful evil woman on the ship with the black sails. The minstrel listened gravely; and, when the king had finished his story, told him that the woman was really a demon in disguise, who would have flung him into the sea and left him to perish.
“And, King Mordrain,” said the minstrel, “you are one of those who have been chosen to follow the Grail people into West-over-the-Sea and to find the hiding place in which the Shining Cup has been safely placed by Joseph. But you must never follow any leader, nor sail from this island in any ship, unless you see the cross that one day will shine red upon the white banner of England. That banner, only, is the true banner for you — that sign, only, the true sign which will lead you to the hiding place of the cup that people know now as the Holy Grail.”
The minstrel and the ship vanished once more, but Mordrain was left refreshed and comforted.
Another day passed, night came, and the king slept calmly in his cave. He went out just as the morning star was fading, and, behold! a third ship was sailing towards the island.
Mordrain gazed and gazed, and suddenly his face grew radiant with delight. He recognized the ship — it had lain always at anchor in his own royal bay! Familiar forms of his own courtiers crowded in the bows — familiar faces were turned upon him, familiar voices called and shouted his name! King Mordrain waved his hands and shouted back to the courtiers. Only for one moment did he pause before leaping down the rocks to meet his friends — only for one moment, to look, and look in vain, for the banner with the red cross upon it.
“It is not there! But what can it matter? This is my own royal vessel, these are my own courtiers and servants!”
The king thrust away the thought of the red cross, and, still calling his glad greetings, sprang onto the deck of the ship. Suddenly he paused — a feeling of terror had seized him the moment that his foot touched the boards. Suddenly a clap of thunder sounded, and everybody on the ship vanished. King Mordrain was left on the ship, without pilot, sailors, sails, or rigging.
King Mordrain called aloud upon the beautiful minstrel to save him. Then, out of the blue distance, came two birds like shining eagles, and they carried a knight, with a wonderful pitiful face, between them. They paused near Mordrain’s terrible ship, and the knight with the brave gentle face stooped towards the water and seemed to trace something upon the waves. Mordrain thought that, under the white foam of the sea, he saw the red cross that, he had been told, would shine one day on the white banner of St. George.
Then the knight called to the king and bade him take the rudder, and follow the flight of the birds, for he was Mordrain’s appointed guardian and would lead him to safety. And the two great birds turned westward, and Mordrain followed them, carried mysteriously in the ship without sailors and without sails, until he reached West-over-the-Sea and landed on the shore on the very spot where Joseph and the Rich Fisher had landed with the silver table and the Shining Cup of the Holy Grail.